Jeremy Sarber

Sovereignty and responsibility

I believe God is sovereign. I also believe man is responsible. While these distinct doctrines seem to contradict one another, I believe they run parallel throughout Scripture.

For example, consider the following statement from the apostle Peter. He preached, Jesus, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain (Ac 2:23 KJV). On the one hand, Peter accuses Israel of killing Christ. They are guilty because they are responsible for his death. On the other hand, Peter claims Jesus died according to God’s predetermined plan (i.e., God’s sovereignty). Christ’s crucifixion, in other words, is a clear example of the parallel in question.

Since our finite minds are typically uncomfortable with paradoxes and mysteries, we devise solutions that usually require taking scissors to the Bible. Some deny God’s sovereignty to preserve man’s responsibility and willing choices, while others prefer to diminish man’s responsibility and spare God’s sovereignty. I appreciate Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on the matter. In a sermon on 1 John 5:1, he said:

Brethren, be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth. Rise above the babyhood which cannot believe two doctrines until it sees the connecting link. Have you not two eyes, man? Must you needs put one of them out in order to see clearly?

God says, For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa 55:9 KJV). We’re not capable of understanding everything the Bible teaches, and we don’t have to understand it to believe it. Faith itself is the evidence of things not seen nor entirely understood (Heb 11:1 KJV).

Regarding our eternal salvation, God insists we must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved (Ac 16:31 KJV). We must turn to live (Eze 33:11 KJV). We are responsible.

Simultaneously, Scripture teaches that one cannot believe and be saved apart from sovereign acts of God. John 3 contains an example of this paradox. Jesus tells an inquisitive Pharisee:

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. The wind bloweth where it listeth [or pleases], and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:3, 8 KJV)

In case the birth analogy wasn’t clear enough—no one has control of his own birth—Jesus proceeds to say we cannot control the Spirit’s movements, yet we need the Spirit to be born again and see the kingdom of God. God is sovereign over our salvation.

Then, Jesus flips the coin to show us the other side:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God. (John 3:14-21 KJV)

Please note the keyword in this text. Christ uses a form of the word believe five times. He also uses the notable verbs come and do. Furthermore, he uses an Old Testament illustration where only those looking at the bronze snake survived (see Numbers 21:4-9). Man is responsible.

To be clear, man’s responsibility (i.e., believe in Christ) leads to eternal life. Neglecting this responsibility (i.e., refusing to believe in Christ) leads to condemnation.

According to Jesus in John 3, God commands us to come to the light, yet no one can see the light unless he is born of God’s sovereign Spirit. Brethren, be willing to see both sides of the shield of truth.

We see this parallel over and over again. In John 6, Jesus says:

I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:35-40 KJV)

Come to me. Believe in me. You are responsible. But you didn’t come. You didn’t believe. You are responsible. All whom the Father gives me will come to me. They will believe, and I will raise them on the last day. God is sovereign.

I’ll provide just one more example from Romans 10. The apostle Paul quotes Isaiah twice, who quotes God. First, God says, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me (Ro 10:20 KJV). God is sovereign. He found and revealed himself to sinners who were not seeking him.

Second, God says, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people (Ro 10:21 KJV). Man is responsible. Though God mercifully held out his hands as a free offer to sinners, they refused. Therefore, God calls them disobedient and defiant.

Once again, I’ll quote Spurgeon from a sermon he preached on these same verses (Romans 10:20, 21):

That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

In conclusion, I’ll cite one more passage, leaving you to meditate on its implications regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 KJV)